In the latest sign that any hope for an NHL season of any length is quite fleeting, at best, on Friday the NHL canceled all games through December 14 and also canceled the All-Star game that was slated to take place in Columbus, Ohio on January 27, 2013 (ESPN).
Was this a surprise? Not really.
The NHLPA, to its credit, responded to the NHL's demands for a comprehensive proposal by delivering one on Wednesday (National Post). When the sports media and fans reviewed the proposal, there was a feeling of optimism that maybe, just maybe, this would be the sort of proposal that could bring about an end to the lockout.
For the first time in the process, the NHLPA was willing to agree to a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenue, and it would be based on a percentage of that revenue rather than wrapped around a guaranteed dollar amount.
That had to be music to the owners' ears, as they had been trying to fashion the new CBA around some form of a percentage of hockey-related revenue since the lockout began 10 weeks ago.
So it was somewhat disappointing—albeit not that surprising—to hear Gary Bettman describe the two sides as still being "far apart" (National Post).
What is perhaps more surprising is to read how certain analysts are actually optimistic that a deal is imminent, and that the start of the season might not be far off.
Pierre LeBrun is one such individual. His blog post on the topic on Thanksgiving demonstrated commendable optimism that a deal could be reached (ESPN).
Sorry Pierre, but I am not drinking the Kool-Aid any longer and, unfortunately, this latest batch of cancellations won't be the last.
Here are a couple reasons that's the case.
The Two Sides Are More Polarized Than Ever
One of the biggest factors standing between any sort of imminent deal to end the lockout is an overwhelming sense that the NHL and NHLPA genuinely do not like each other.
I am not saying Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr actually loath each other or anything like that. What I mean is that each move made by the other side elicits a very defined negative response that actually seems to be driving the sides further apart when they should be getting closer to agreeing.
Stop and think about some of what has gone on the past few weeks. Several days of concentrated, semi-secret negotiations at an undisclosed location only served to drive the two sides further apart.
Gary Bettman wanted a moratorium on negotiations, then back tracked and asked for the NHLPA to make a comprehensive proposal (ESPN).
When the NHLPA came through on this request, instead of hearing how we were getting closer to a deal, Bettman indicated the two sides were still very far apart. More troubling is how the NHL feels like the NHLPA is not really negotiating with them. In an ESPN article, Bettman had the following to say:
We're dealing with a union that really isn't trying to negotiate, make any deal that we can live with for the long-term health of this game...We're hoping that with the passage of time, the players' association will come to realize that what we have proposed has been more than fair. And the fact that we're keeping this proposal on the table, when it was contingent on an 82-game season, should be evidence of our desire to get this done the right way.
To this, Donald Fehr responded that:
My response is they seem to consider negotiating to be merely agreeing with them. We've identified what's important to players, but they seem to be so far at least unwilling to treat those concerns in a serious way...On the big things there was as of today no reciprocity in any meaningful sense, no movement on the players' share, no movement on salary-arbitration eligibility, no movement on free agency eligibility, no agreement on a pension plan.
Feeling optimistic yet?
Of course not! And who could blame you?
I have lost track of how many articles I have written on the lockout since it began, but I have always held to the belief that no deal would ever get done until the two sides began to trust each other. Well, we are a long, long way from that.
If the NHL was counting on the NHLPA fracturing as dissension in the ranks grew the longer the lockout dragged on, it looks like that gamble has failed.
Yes, there are some very frustrated players out there, and much was made of Roman Hamrlik's rather public vote of no-confidence in Donald Fehr this past week (sbnation.com).
But by and large the players seem to be more united than ever—and getting increasingly agitated with the NHL's apparent unwillingness to budge on anything that matters to the players.
You have well respected players like Ray Whitney, as reported by ESPN, likening the NHL to school-yard bullies and wanting everything on their terms.
Or you have players like Jarret Stoll of the Los Angeles Kings vowing that the players won't cave in and accusing the NHL of having a date set the whole time where they would start negotiating if, and only if, they could not get the NHLPA to agree to their terms (ESPN).
Many fans out there want to blame the NHLPA for the lockout continuing, claiming the players to be greedy and selfish prima donnas who only care about their paychecks and not the long-term future of the game. There is certainly some truth to that.
But the NHL is just flat out being dishonest with the fans and the players. The clearest example of this is noted earlier in this article where Gary Bettman stated that the NHLPA is not trying to negotiate.
The NHLPA's proposal from this week saw them abandon their demand for a guaranteed dollar amount, with respect to hockey-related revenue, and move in the direction of what the NHL has wanted, a 50-50 split based on a percentage of revenue.
How is that not negotiating?
It is that kind of thinking and approach that will lead to the next step in this process—and it could very well see any hope for any sort of season utterly destroyed.
The Final Countdown
For the first time since the lockout began, the NHLPA is considering an option that, in my opinion, is long overdue—decertification.
Often referred to as an option of last resort, it might be the only option left that can force two sides unwilling to negotiate fairly with one another to do just that.
It is an option that both the NFLPA and NBPA employed during their own lockouts last year and, to a large extent, it is a tactic that helped resolve those respective lockouts.
One high-profile player who sees decertification as the only viable option left to the NHLPA is Buffalo Sabres superstar goalie Ryan Miller. As reported by The Globe and Mail, Miller sees decertification as the next step in an actual process—and the only way for the NHLPA to show the NHL that it means business:
After watching the other sport leagues go through labour disputes last year, it is apparent that until decertification is filed, there will not be any real movement or negotiation. Many things in our negotiation are very consistent with the NFL and NBA negotiations, and both of those leagues filed papers necessary to decertify...Decertification becomes part of the script because Gary Bettman and the owners are trying to get a sense of how far they can push us and at some point we have to say ‘enough...They want to see if we will take a bad deal because we get desperate or if we have the strength to push back. Decertification is a push back and should show we want a negotiation and a fair deal on at least some of our terms.
It is a definite, yet calculated, gamble for the players to take, as it puts much of the entire process in the hands of the Courts, as much as in the hands of the NHL and NHLPA.
But it also creates options for the NHLPA and forces the NHL to deal with multiple battles on legal fronts, including injunctions and anti-trust litigation. It might also force a federal mediator to get involved who could place significant pressure on both sides to get a deal done.
It is one thing for the NHL to ignore the NHLPA as far as truly negotiating with them.Thumbing their noses at judges, mediators and the legal system in general—some of which have the power to hammer the NHL very hard—might not be an appealing option at all for the NHL.
Naturally, the threat of decertification elicited an expected threat from the NHL. In an interview with Sportsnet radio via NBC Sports, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly more or less threatened that decertification would likely lead to the cancellation of the NHL season.
Whether that is a bluff or something more is hard to say. But, clearly, the mere threat of decertification and a protracted legal dispute got the attention of the NHL.
And didn't David Stern make the same sort of threat when the NBPA decertified in November of 2011(New York Times)?
The NBA lockout ended 12 days later.
I seriously doubt the NHLPA decertifying will result in the loss of the entire season. If the season is lost, it was going to be lost anyway. But it will result in the cancellation of more games and, in all probability, the loss of all games through January 1, 2013.
Daly is correct that decertification, and the ensuing legal disputes and lawsuits, will be a time consuming process that will complicate things. But one has to ask what other options the NHLPA really has?
It would be one thing if common sense were in play here and the two sides would agree to split the difference separating them on the make-whole issue. For instance, if the NHL suddenly came forward and offered $302 million to resolve the make-whole issue, essentially splitting the difference between the two sides, then the NHLPA would be foolish to decertify, all the remaining issues notwithstanding.
Absent that unexpected dose of logic being interjected into the process, decertification seems like the only option left.
The reality is that the NHLPA should have played hardball and decertified as soon as the first batch of regular season games were canceled. Their delay in doing this virtually guarantees that the batch of games canceled through December 14 will not be the last.
In fact, the games cancelled on Friday might just be the beginning of the end.